Performing For The Camera
It’s been impossible to avoid exposure to Juno Calypso. One of the biggest names in contemporary photography, Calypso has rocked the boat with her latest project The Honeymoon. Shot in a love hotel in Pennsylvania, this baby pink photographic series has awakened the masses by addressing the messy relationship between female identity, consumerism and the beauty industry.
Earlier this year she collaborated with ICVL to give a sell-out talk at the Arnolfini in Bristol. Her character as witty as her work, she charmed the audience with injections from her teenage years, whilst discussing fourth wave feminism and the buzzword that’s taken the photographic industry by storm; the ‘female gaze’.
Calypso bravely bares all to mock the abundance of sexual female imagery that saturates our culture. Her body is on full show, yet her face is mostly hidden—what is visible is distorted in ecstasy. She wears a wig of curly auburn hair and has painted herself alien-green. Although completely bare, Calypso’s barely recogniseable. Beginning as an experiment with a face mask, her exaggerated construction pokes colourfully at the absurdity in the beauty rituals that women buy into.
In ‘12 Reasons You’re Tired All the Time’, Calypso wears a thick, plastic mask that she instructs with a remote. The product claims to electrocute your face until your wrinkles disappear. “Now, I’m not a scientist,” says Calypso, “But I don’t think that’s gonna work. What is this stuff that women are being sold?” She came across an article with this title whilst flicking through a women’s magazine at her grandma’s house. Thinking, ‘You’re right, I am tired all the time’, Calypso took the quiz, but was left irritated by Marie Claire’s insipid solutions such as ‘You’re not getting enough sleep, go to bed an hour earlier’. She retorted, “This is not the reason I’m tired all the time. I’m tired because life is hard and long! I’m a woman and I have all these expectations—I don’t need to drink more f***ing water! I need things to change.”
Progressive, feminist writer Naomi Wolf has been a great inspiration for Calypso and her work. Written in 1990, her top-seller The Beauty Myth dismantles the beauty industry, describing ‘how images of beauty are used against women’. A term that frequently surfaces in the book is ‘beauty pornography’—a phrase that may seem as alien as a green Calypso, but an advertising method we’re more than familiar with. It “looks like this: The perfected woman lies prone, pressing down her pelvis. Her back arches, her mouth is open, her eyes shut, her nipples erect; there is a fine spray of moisture over her golden skin. The position is female superior; the stage of arousal, the plateau phase just preceding orgasm.” (1) Glued onto double-decker buses, blown up in shop windows, used to sell most products in any magazine—beauty pornogoraphy’s all around us. We know that sex sells, but Wolf reveals how sex has been re-marketed in our consumerist culture as ‘beauty’, so that women will buy into it. She writes, “Unlike female sexuality, innate to all women, ‘beauty’ is hard work, few women are born with it, and it is not free.” (2) In essence, we’re lead to believe that love and sex are only on the cards if you’re attractive. Unable to escape this ‘beauty pornography’ in modern society, the reader understands from these images that “she will have to look like that if she wants to feel like that.” (3)
The Honeymoon series is undeniably alluring. The images nurture a preferred reading on every platform; a flirtatious, pastel colour palette and a sexually-charged woman in lingerie. In one particular shot, manicured nails—that are so perfect they reflect off a cartoony sparkle—reach elegantly out from a creamy-looking liquid that resembles glaze icing. The soft grain of her film camera feels like you're slipping into a dream. “I think I’ll always be attracted to glossy images. Pictures that look edible”, says Calypso. And this certainly does. The textures look so edible, you could lick her finger. It sexualizes the image: a sensory strip tease that almost entirely drowns out the ominous nature of the liquid—and the image as a whole. Any hand-reaching-from-grave references your brain may be attempting to project from the darker corners of your psyche, are smoothed over by the silky glaze. Yet peel back the manipulations, and you can see this visual delicacy for what it is: a woman that’s drowned in a swampy amalgamation of gender inequality, the pressures of ‘beauty pornography’, and overbearing insecurity.
With constant overexposure to images of idealised women, a gap inevitably forms between a fantasy world and reality. No matter how much money is thrown at whichever flaw, real women will never live up to this fictitious level of perfection. Yet many are consumed by the effort to, under the impression that beauty is the catalyst for love. In reality of course, the pursuit to perfection often achieves the opposite—individuality fogs, whilst insecurities flourish. Calypso’s shots poke lightly at this reality. Although she’s encircled by numerous imitations of herself in The Honeymoon series; she’s noticeably alone. We can assume she is either practicing seduction for a hypothetical partner (absent, imaginary, or desired), or she has been sucked into ‘The Beauty Myth’ so ferociously that preoccupation with self-image has superseded the preoccupation of finding a partner. Either way, Calypso demonstrates how an obsession with beauty often delivers sexual estrangement and loneliness.
The work is ‘coming of age’ in every sense. It’s an amalgamation of awakening sexuality, new wave feminism and the significance of images in our culture. In her first few years at University, Calypso explained how initially she just wanted to shoot “sexy pics of sexy women”. Using her friends as subjects, she says, “I’d ask them to open their mouths more, to flirt with the camera more.” Until the penny dropped, and Calypso realised her practice mimicked the sexist photographers she admired—but that was all. “Why!? Why do we need to do this? Why do we make women look out with lazy eyes and big pouting mouths?”
When her Dad handed her a digital camera for the first time as a teenager, it wasn’t long before Calypso was taking nude portraits of herself and sending them to the boys she fancied over the dodgy landline internet we had in the early noughties. “I’d send them off and be sitting there, waiting for the compliments to roll in”, she says. But over time, this grew a little dull. “I started taking weirder portraits”, she continues. “I’d pose like before, but with things like ham coming out of my face”. As an experiment, she sent these photos to the same guys. Calypso quickly discovered the powers of both photography and of female sexuality. “You can take pictures of yourself and make someone laugh, turn someone on, or make them feel weird. All three are exciting, but I mostly want to get people to think. It can be sexy and cliche, but it can also make a point.”
‘A Dream In Green’ is an exaggerated construction that references the level of disillusionment and estrangement that both men and women feel towards women’s bodies under this requirement for perfection. The shot projects similar ideologies to the rest of The Honeymoon series, but stirs up the stew with references that raise compelling questions about fourth wave feminism. It was that scene in The Shining—where gawking Jack Nicholson watches speechlessly as beautiful Lia Beldam emerges naked from a bathtub, walking slowly and seductively towards him—that inspired Calypso to paint herself green. Jack and Lia are kissing, wrapped in a close embrace, when Jack sees in the bathroom mirror that Lia is no longer the perfect vision that just approached him; her skin is holey and molding, and she’s aged rapidly into a ‘terrifying’ older woman. “I love the monstrous-feminine fusion”, says Calypso, “the ‘I’m feminine, but I’ll eat you’ idea.”
As soon as her image was released to the public, Calypso received messages from Star Trek fans praising her for paying homage to Vina; the green, Orion slave girl who dances seductively for Captain Pike his guests. “It was perfect”, she says, ‘“in these clips, they spend more time filming the mens faces and watching their reactions to the sexy woman, than they do showing the woman.” Thinking back to Laura Mulvey and her infamous ‘male gaze’—the theorist that sticks resolutely in the minds of all media students—Calypso exclaims, “I don’t want to see this guy’s stupid face! Show me Vina, she’s got skills!” And yet it’s all part of the construct; “Other men need to see that to think, ‘Oh, it’s OK to feel excited by this woman. These guys are still sexualising her, even though she’s green’.”
When it comes to representations of women within popular culture, this double-act of of desire and repulsion is a motif that’s repeated time and time again. The idea that women deceptively use sex—a ‘spell’ that men are unable to deny—to lure men into traps. We’ve seen it date as far back as 1897 with Bram Stoker’s female vampires in Dracula. More recently we’ve seen it in Charmed, American Horror Story: Coven, even up up to this year in the character of Elaine from Anna Biller’s retro fantasy horror, The Love Witch. Elaine is a beautiful, young, dark-haired witch, who’s simultaneously plotting and manipulative. On the quest for ‘love’, she spikes the men she desires with a potion that enhances their affections for her, but ends up killing them. This witchy trickery often correlates with female sexuality, or other womanly strengths, such as intuition. Innate womanly powers such as these are ‘unknown’, feared by men, and are therefore often demonised in the media. Be warned—sexually empowered women are alluring, but very dangerous.
Much like Biller, Calypso mocks this re-occurring duality. She colours her sexuality green to break two moulds; the demonisation of female sexuality in popular culture, and to free sexuality from ‘the beauty myth’.
Slave girl, Vina, got men to question what they were seeing. They were attracted, but were they supposed to be? Rather than shooting more numbing images of ‘beauty pornography’ for people to subconsciously absorb, Calypso engages with a modern take on the duality of repulsion and desire. She references the duality to break the cycle of objectification; to encourage questions; to awaken the nerve endings from the stagnancy of perfection.
Calypso forces 'beauty' to take center stage, and dares our consumerist society to take a hard look in the mirror. By stripping beauty down and exposing it's agenda, she brings true female sexuality back into focus—reclaiming its representational power from the grip of men.
But visually, it can still be sexy. “It’s harder for women photographers working now to move against the patriarchal system, because wherever you put your pictures, you are invariably consumed by that system” (4), says author and curator Charlotte Jansen in last month’s publication of BJP—an edition dedicated to the ‘Female Gaze’. What's more, many have "argued that women couldn't simply disengage from the influences of society, and were as likely to objectify female bodies as men" (5) continues BJP editor Simon Bainbridge. This may be true, but what does this say for liberating female sexuality?
Calypso’s shots show that the ‘gaze’ may still be working within the constraints of a patriarchal world, but that sexual expression doesn’t need to be flattened in order to reach an equilibrium. In fact, in order to reach that equilibrium, female sexuality needs to be discussed and celebrated—by women. Unlike the representations of women in the media that precedes us, the female gaze gives women a voice. It's an empowering platform for discussions on identity, equality, sexuality, pride, ownership, real beauty and self-confidence. Bainbridge writes, “As women gain more control of how they are represented, they change how women are perceived.” (6)
If there’s something that Calypso fully understands, it’s that photography is an expression of power. And that it’s absolutely possible for the female gaze to work hand-in-hand with fourth wave feminism to redefine female identity in our image-infused culture.
Wolf, N (1990) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, ‘Sex’, 132
Wolf, N (1990) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, ‘Sex’, 151
Wolf, N (1990) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, ‘Sex’, 133
Jansen, C (2017) British Journal of Photography, ‘Female Gaze’, Issue 7859, 3
Bainbridge, S (2017) British Journal of Photography, ‘Female Gaze’, Issue 7859, 3
Bainbridge, S (2017) British Journal of Photography, ‘Female Gaze’, Issue 7859, 3